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Rep. Stewart takes role of Trump defender in impeachment inquiry

By Graham Dudley, | Posted - Nov. 21, 2019 at 9:01 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Day Five of the public impeachment hearings for President Donald Trump has now concluded, with Fiona Hill and David Holmes testifying today before the House Intelligence Committee, the cameras and the nation.

As Utah’s sole elected official on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Chris Stewart has had the opportunity to ask questions of every witness interviewed so far. Though his questions represent just a few minutes of these marathon, hourslong sessions, Stewart has used the time to argue that Trump’s focus was on eliminating corruption and that Joe and Hunter Biden’s conduct in Ukraine was worthy of investigation.

The impeachment inquiry sprang from a whistleblower complaint about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Democrats say the call and subsequent witness testimony proves Trump improperly tied the release of military aid to the investigation of a political rival.

Here’s a breakdown of Stewart’s involvement in the public hearings so far:

Day 1: Wednesday, Nov. 13

Witnesses: William Taylor, acting United States ambassador to Ukraine; George Kent, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs

Stewart began his remarks last Wednesday by casting the impeachment hearings as a continuation of previous efforts to investigate the president.

“Welcome, I think, to year four of the ongoing impeachment of President Trump,” he began. “I’m sorry that you’ve been dragged into this.”

He said that after all the hours of witness testimony, the case for impeachment comes down to the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. He held up a copy of the rough transcript of that call released by the White House.

“There is one sentence. One phone call. That is what this entire impeachment proceeding is based upon,” Stewart said. “And I’ve got to tell you — if your impeachment case is so weak that you have to lie and exaggerate about it to convince the American people that they need to remove this president, then you’ve got a problem.”

Stewart said that Ukraine has battled endemic corruption and that there are “dozens and dozens of nations” battling corruption with “hundreds of corrupt government officials.”

“Can you give me an example,” he said, “of any time where the vice president of the United States shows up and demands that a specific prosecutor be fired and gives them a six-hour time limit to do that? Are you aware of that ever happening any other place?”

Stewart was referring to former Vice President Joe Biden’s efforts to oust Ukranian top prosecutor Viktor Shokin. In a 2018 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden said he told former Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if Ukraine did not fire Shokin. “I’m leaving in six hours,” Biden recalled at the appearance. “If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.”

Trump and Republicans claim the firing may have shielded energy company Burisma, where Biden’s son Hunter served on the board, from investigation. But Democrats and many officials say Shokin’s firing was an international effort to fight corruption, and that Shokin was not investigating corruption aggressively enough.

The Associated Press has said corruption allegations against the Bidens have been “debunked.”

“If someone was a candidate for political office, even for president of the United States, should they be immune from investigation?” Stewart asked Taylor and Kent.

“No one is above the law, sir,” Kent answered.

But during the hearing, Kent also claimed to have overheard a phone call between Trump and Ambassador Gordon Sondland mentioning "the investigations." Sondland, he said, told him Trump cared more about investigating Biden than about Ukraine.

Taylor said it was "illogical" and "crazy" to condition Ukranian aid on political investigations.

Day 2: Friday, Nov. 15

Witness: Marie Yovanovitch, former United States ambassador to Ukraine

Stewart greeted Yovanovitch much as he had to Kent and Taylor, welcoming her to “year four of the impeachment proceedings.”

The day before, on Nov. 14, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a news conference that the president’s actions amounted to bribery.

“I would now feel compelled to ask you, Madame Ambassador, as you sit here before us: Do you have any information regarding the president of the United States accepting any bribes?” Stewart asked Yovanovitch.

“No,” she responded.

“Do you have any information regarding any criminal activity that the president of the United States has been involved with at all?” he said. Again, she answered no.

Yovanovitch also testified Friday that she believed her ouster as Ukraine’s ambassador was unwarranted and was led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. She said she was the target of a Giuliani "smear campaign" which resulted in her sudden ouster.

Stewart asked Yovanovitch if she believes, nonetheless, that it’s the “right policy” for presidents to appoint and remove ambassadors at will.

“Yeah, I probably think it is,” she answered.

“It may be imperfect,” Stewart said. “There may be times when it’s not used perfectly, but I agree with you. It is the right policy.”

Day 3: Tuesday, Nov. 19

Witnesses: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Director for European Affairs for the National Security Council; Jennifer Williams, adviser to Vice President Mike Pence; Kurt Volker, former State Department special envoy to Ukraine; Tim Morrison, former White House national security official

Stewart began his questioning Tuesday by thanking Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for his service in the military. “As one military family to another,” Stewart said, “thank you and your brothers for your service.”

But his back-and-forth with Vindman may be the most contentious of his exchanges so far. Vindman earlier had corrected Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., when Nunes referred to him as “Mr. Vindman.”

“You quickly corrected him. You wanted to be called Lt. Col. Vindman,” Stewart said. “Do you always insist on civilians calling you by your rank?”

Stewart went on to question Vindman’s interpretation of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy, which Vindman was listening to at the time. While Vindman likened Trump’s request of a “favor” to a military officer giving a subordinate an order, Stewart pointed out that neither Trump nor Zelenskiy has ever served in the military.

“I stick by that judgment,” Vindman said.

“I’ve got to tell you, I think that’s nonsense,” Stewart said.

Vindman told the House Intelligence Committee it was "inappropriate, it was improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent.”

Later, while questioning Volker and Morrison, Stewart referred to the hearings as “Impeach-a-palooza 2019,” the “Democratic plan to compel America to impeach President Donald J. Trump through sheer force of boredom, 'cause it’s been a long day.”

Day 4: Wednesday, Nov. 20

Witnesses: Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union; Laura Cooper, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs; David Hale, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs

Stewart argued in his questioning of Sondland that Trump’s treatment, in the impeachment proceedings and beyond, has been unfair.

“There were those calling for his impeachment literally before he was inaugurated,” Stewart said.

Stewart assailed Democrats’ claims that Trump’s behavior toward Zelenskiy amounted to “extortion,” reading the definition of extortion and quotes from Zelenskiy where the Ukranian president claimed he felt no pressure from Trump. Sondland declined to weigh in on the word. “I’m not a lawyer, either, and I don’t want to characterize any legal terms,” Sondland said.

But Sondland agreed with Stewart that it is common for the U.S. to withhold aid to countries in order to influence their behavior.

In his testimony, Sondland not only said there was a definite "quid pro quo" but that senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, knew about it.

He said he personally was "adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid" for Ukraine.

Later, when questioning Hale and Cooper, Stewart returned to his point from the previous week that it all “comes down to” the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy, which he hoped “every American would take the time to read.”

Stewart asked Hale if he believed it was appropriate for Trump to “test” the new Ukranian president, Zelenskiy, before trusting him with millions in military aid. “I think it was understandable for the administration, as a new president in Ukraine was coming to office, to understand better what that president’s policies would be, and attitude toward the United States,” Hale said.

Day 5: Thursday, Nov. 21

Witnesses: Fiona Hill, former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia; David Holmes, counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine

During her testimony, Hill said that Sondland was "involved in a domestic political errand" and that Giuliani's involvement in Ukraine was transparently targeting the Bidens.

But Stewart declined to ask specific questions of Hill and Holmes today, instead using his allotted time to give his Senate colleagues — who will act as jurors if the House ultimately votes to impeach the president — a list of witnesses to call and questions to ask in the event of a Senate trial.

“First, you have to hear from the whistleblower,” Stewart began, adding that his or her testimony could be done in a closed session if necessary. “But you can’t initiate an impeachment of the president of the United States and not have to answer some questions.”

Stewart also called for the Senate to interview Rep. Adam Schiff, Intelligence Committee chairman; Hunter Biden; Devon Archer, former Burisma board member; Alexandra Chalupa, Democratic consultant; and Fusion GPS contractor Nellie Ohr.

“The American people expect a lot in politics. They understand the tussle, the fight, the debate,” Stewart said. “But they also expect basic fairness, and these proceedings have been anything but fair. The Senate has an opportunity to fix that. I am confident they will, and I look forward to them completing the job that we could have done here.”

Graham Dudley

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